How Does Pornography Affect Us?

The truth is that we do not, at present, have conclusive information on exactly how the watching of pornography affects an individual or their sexual attitudes. One of the factors needed to see a true cause-effect relationship is time. However, the pervasiveness, ease of access, and frequency of use of pornography are all relatively new. Therefore, researchers do not have the benefit of observing patterns that occur over time with respect to porn usage.

Furthermore, most studies on this topic are based on self-report and subjective interpretation of how pornography is affecting a person’s life, sexuality, relationships, and body image.  Factors like shame, religiosity, or a person’s perception of pornography as wrong will influence someone's report.

This creates a challenge in trying to make concrete statements and predictions about how broadly applicable our current body of data actually is. Many studies are inconclusive or offer contradicting data regarding how consumption of sexually explicit material will affect someone. There is also an incomplete understanding of how adolescents and pre-pubescent individuals exposed to pornography will be affected in adulthood.

What is known is that the numbers associated with pornography use and revenue from this industry are nothing short of astronomical. Up to 99% of adult men and up to 80% of students surveyed report having watched pornography at some point.

In one study, the average age of first exposure was 14 years, but some students under the age of 12 did report having access to pornography. The commonly used site, Pornhub, reports that, for 120 million people, visiting their site is a daily activity. Exactly how much this industry earns is unclear but is thought to easily top 100 billion annually.

How COVID-19 Influenced Pornography Use

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 changed almost every aspect of our daily lives on a global and granular level and this includes observable patterns of streaming pornographic videos. During quarantine and social distancing mandates, Pornhub reported up to 24% increase in site traffic between mid-February and mid-March of 2020.

This includes the time during which stay-at-home mandates took effect and reflects the comparison of usage patterns seen in the pre-pandemic period to usage in the pandemic era. This data was collected from 27 countries that had some level of lockdown policy in place.

When observations on the frequency of use during particular times of day were made, there was a 31% increase in pornography site traffic at 3 am. Also noted was a 26% increase in use at 1 pm. This raises questions about the use of porn correlating with disruptions in sleep patterns and diminished work productivity. Some of this may reflect boredom or increased access to one’s personal computer while being at home.

This increase in porn use may also be an attempt to self-soothe, reduce stress, and deal with COVID-related anxiety and depression.

The quarantine presented previously unseen levels of financial uncertainty and separation from loved ones. Porn use may be an attempt to fulfill unmet desires such as human connectedness. Lack of access to 12-step programs during the pandemic left those individuals with a history of addictive behavior with limited in-person access to their support systems which could also be a factor

Altered Body Perception

The images we consume, in part, shape our standards of beauty and concept of attractiveness. For some, the use of pornography creates dissatisfaction with the quality of their romantic relationships. Those consumers of pornography with a body mass index (BMI) of over 25 reported greater discontent in their relationships.

With pornography may come repeated exposure to body types that may meet conventional ideas of being fit or appealing. A person’s self-esteem could be injured if they were comparing their own bodies to these standards and feeling like they are lacking.

They could begin to view their bodies as outside of what is desirable. If they are comparing their partner’s bodies to those seen in porn, it could increase relationship dissatisfaction. This may also explain the correlation between adolescent female pornography usage and psychological distress.

Sexual Satisfaction

When over 6,400 young users of pornography were surveyed, several reported that they did feel that it had some self-perceived negative effects on their life. Among those negative effects was a general decrease in sexual satisfaction reported by 1 in 4 study subjects. Also described was the need for greater stimulation to reach orgasm which was felt to be an unwanted effect of porn consumption.

However, one study found that for adult women, pornography use predicted a lower threshold for arousal and less difficulty achieving orgasm.  

Users who subjectively describe their use as problematic were two to four times more likely to report sexual dysfunction when compared to pornography users who did not feel that their use was problematic.

Some admitted to neglecting their basic needs and responsibility in favor of porn usage. This was common among those who self-identified as having porn addiction. Those who reported viewing pornography before the of 12, were much more likely to feel that their use was problematic and compulsive.

Sexual Aggression

Users of pornography were more likely to participate in forms of aggression during their own sexual encounters. Actually, while it is not fully understood exactly how it is shaping sexual behaviors, one of the few consistent research results is that sexual aggression—both perpetration and victimization—correlates with pornography usage. This may be due to the scenarios portrayed in pornography that impact a person’s idea of what a sexual encounter should be like.

Some young users did describe pornography as educational. This correlates with what is known to be depicted in some sexually explicit material. While extreme violence was found to be rare, themes of mild aggression, verbal aggression and domination were present in up to 75% of pornographic videos.

It is unclear if the trend of recent increases in intimate partner violence among adolescents correlates to greater access to media with pornographic content.

Other Sexual Behaviors

Pornography exposure also seems related to a more permissive attitude towards sexual encounters and casual sex and may be contributing to the trend of “hookup” culture.

What may be concerning is if young people are feeling that they are learning from watching pornography—condom use in heterosexual intercourse portrayed was rare with a rate of approximately 2%. However, it was more common in gay male sex at up to 64%.

A Word From Verywell

Although pornography use is certainly common, it is worth understanding the mental health effects that pornography use could potentially have. If you are concerned you have an unhealthy relationship with pornography, it is worth consulting with a mental health professional to manage your consumption.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Carrotte ER, Davis AC, Lim MS. Sexual Behaviors and Violence in Pornography: Systematic Review and Narrative Synthesis of Video Content Analyses. J Med Internet Res. 2020;22(5):e16702. Published 2020 May 14. doi:10.2196/16702